This was the week when the real George Bush stood up, and a bipartisan chorus told him to sit down until he has learned his lines.
One morning he said trading higher taxes on the rich for a lower capital gains tax rate might be "fine." That afternoon, after some Republican senators told him otherwise, he indicated he would not touch such a smelly trade with tongs. An impertinent Democrat wondered what Bush would think on the morrow; some Republican senators said he had not said what some other Republicans said he said.
Does it matter? It is all only words, and in Washington today words are like chips in a casino -- plastic parts of a game.
Evidence that Washington is, strictly speaking, deranged -- literally disconnected from reality -- includes Richard Darman's statement on Sunday television that Bush did not do what the nation saw him do. Darman, the budget director, said the president, in his television speech concerning the budget deal, "wasn't actually asking the public to support this."
This is what Bush said: "Tell your congressman and senators you support this. ... Urge them to stand with the president. ... Urge them to do what the bipartisan leadership has done. ... Urge them to stand with their congressional leaders. ... Ask them to fight for the future of your kids by supporting this budget agreement. ... "
Darman insists the president actually said "in effect, to congressmen, not the American people, to congressmen, 'I'm telling your constituents this is a hard vote for you.' " Oh. The president goes on three networks to address 535 people 16 blocks away? Apparently even when using the mass media, Washington talks only to itself. This is Washington solipsism: Nothing but us exists.
Trying to trigger public support, the president on TV triggered the public's opposition, and this question: How can a president so popular be so powerless? The answer is lurking in the question: He is popular because he makes minimal use of power.
He ran a blue-skies campaign and even just 8 1/2 months ago said he saw in the sky a deficit (now projected at about $300 billion) of only $64 billion. After the polarizing conflicts of the Reagan years, the country wanted to be left alone and elected just the president to perform that nonfunction, a president who believes in bipartisanship, domestic summits, the blurring of party differences.
But now, out of the blue, as it were, he tells the nation that if we go on piling up deficits as we have done during the 10 Reagan-Bush years, we will not "survive," because deficits are like "cancer." However, this life-threatening disease calls for nothing radical -- no political equivalent of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. More like half an aspirin.
The rejected summit package was a pastiche of cooked assumptions (about growth and interest rates), dribs and drabs of little taxes (a tax code painted by Jackson Pollock;) spending "caps" that may be only as binding as the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction requirements, a Dukakis campaign plank (assuming billions to be gained from improved enforcement of the revenue code;) and some Republican socialism (tax shelters called "incentives" to subsidize investment in certain supposedly private enterprises).
The proposed 1991 tax increases and spending cuts amounted to only 0.7 percent of GNP; all the taxes would have reduced Americans' after-tax income about one percent. And the stumbling block in the budget negotiations has been the Republican insistence on a capital-gains cut that the president's own economists predict would increase the annual growth rate just 0.06 percent. That amount is too tiny to forecast meaningfully.
When numbers, supposedly instruments of precision, are instead used for propaganda, then the cavalier use of words, as in Darman's gloss on Bush's speech, is unsurprising. If all this were purely cynical, it would be less alarming than the weird sincerity of people who have been striking deals with each other for so long they really think deals determine reality. They think the meaning of numbers and words is "on the table," part of the "package." Partisan meanings are asserted, differences get split and reality is expected to conform to the "deal."
Participants in the budget marathon are exhausted and genuinely indignant when it is suggested that the numbers they are dealing with are small compared to the problem as it already is, before recession. The best face that can be put on all this is put by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who says this:
The day Gramm-Rudman was passed, federal spending was 23.9 percent of GNP. Today it is 22.6 percent. If something with the net configuration of the deal just rejected is finally adopted and enforced, then five years from now spending will be 18.3 percent of GNP. The only new entitlement enacted in the Gramm-Rudman era was the catastrophic health insurance program, which was a political catastrophe because people hate socialism that comes with a price tag.
So, chuckleheaded as everyone here may seem to everyone out there, it is possible to believe that progress is being made. But the way it is being made is deepening the public's misanthropic mood.